What’s Next for Snowmobiling at Yellowstone?

Known for the last wild herd of bison, bubbling mud pots, wolves, and geysers, Yellowstone National Park is an extraordinary place and very unique to America’s geography. But protecting the special nature of this spectacular park has been a battle.

Thankfully, after years of attack by an administration bent on increasing the roar of snowmobiles, a federal court judge has finally said its time to protect the park.

In September, a federal judge told the Bush administration that its plans to allow 540 snowmobiles in the park daily violated the Park Service’s fundamental responsibility to protect the clean air, wildlife, and natural quiet of national parks for the benefit of all visitors. But the struggle to decrease the numbers of damaging snowmobiling at Yellowstone is not over.

The administration now gets to decide how to apply that ruling. And the question is this: Will the Park Service apply the ruling properly by eventually phasing out snowmobiles all together? And will they bring down levels to appropriate amount this year?

A blind eye to the damage

During wintertime, temperatures in this snow-blanketed winter wonderland plummet and the park can be the coldest place in the continental United States. The winter landscape, while beautifully quiet and majestic, is tough and challenging on the wildlife. Bison are particularly harassed when snowmobiles pass through their winter foraging grounds.

In light of this, as well as the air and noise pollution caused by the snowmobiles, the National Park Service decided in 2000 to phase-out snowmobile use.

But, to ensure that all winter visitors continued to enjoy the park, the Service proposed increasing the use of snowcoaches, which are multi-passenger vehicles that travel on packed snow and provide a safari-like experience to visitors without that causing harm. This idea was not novel. In fact, Denali and Zion National Parks had already moved toward this type of system.

Since then, despite the Park Service’s own science showing the snowmobiles to be unhealthy for the park, the Bush Administration has consistently pushed to allow more snowmobile use against the best judgment of scientists, the public, agency staff, and every former Director of the National Park Service since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration. Its proposal to allow 540 snowmobiles actually doubled current numbers.

Victory at last?

While the recent court ruling outlawing the Bush plan was indeed a huge victory, there is still work to do. The ruling requires only that the Park Service make a new decision that protects the air, wildlife and natural quiet of the park. However, it does not tell the Park Service exactly what plan to propose.

Now, in preparation for opening the park up this winter, the administration has prepared a temporary regulation to govern snowmobile and snowcoach use for the next three winters. This temporary regulation would allow up to 318 snowmobiles in Yellowstone per day — and 50 at Grand Teton National Park.

This is an improvement over what the Bush administration was previously proposing. But, it’s not enough. If the Park Service intends to heed its own science that shows these vehicles are damaging, they must move to phase-out snowmobiles all together.

The Service is currently accepting comments about its winter use plans, and we’ve been quick to mobilize our members to push the Park Service to act responsibly. We welcome you to be part of that effort by writing to the Park Service and telling them it’s time to phase out snowmobiles in favor or snowcoaches.

Click here to send a letter to the Park Service.